Do you do what your child asks you to? Not in a sense of doing whatever they wish every time they do, but when they want a hug, want you to read the same book again and again, play with them or take them to the park, do you follow their lead?
Following your child’s lead is one of key concepts in developmental psychology. When we talk about children’s attachment to their caregivers, we often guide the adult to follow their child’s lead. When they are babies, the sequence of watch, wait and wonder summarizes this idea best: watch your child’s actions, wait for their initiative or invitation to join, while wondering what they would like you to do (notice, not what you should be doing, but rather what they would want). There is a lot of guesswork involved here for obvious reasons as babies and toddlers can’t express their wishes verbally very well. But if you make a habit of watching closely and paying attention, knowing what your child wants at any given moment becomes easier with time. Like with any relationship, it takes time to really get to know your partner.
Then things become even easier, as children’s verbal abilities develop, and they are able to tell you what they would like to do. Nevertheless, many times we are less attuned to our older, more verbal kids, than we are to our babies. Why is that? Well, life becomes busier as kids grow up, younger siblings are often added to the mix, and parenting is a long journey without many breaks. We all have limited resources and sometimes we just run on fumes of energy. Not surprisingly, becoming a sensitive parent, attuned to our children’s needs, takes time and patience.
Yet paradoxically, making time and following your child’s requests oftentimes will save your energy and might even end up refueling your tank. How? Because when we follow the child’s lead, when we give him what he wants instead of what we think he should get, the child will relax, having his emotional needs met, and his joy in shared activity with us will be contagious.
Let imagine the following scenario: You are tired after a long day and would prefer to relax at home. However, your six-year-old is stir crazy and wants to go outside to play. After lots of whining, pleading and maybe even screaming, you give in and instead of “he should be playing by himself” you give in to “let’s play ball outside”. You drag yourself to the driveway and start playing. And then a strange thing happens - you realize you have enough energy for a short game of ball, and the sound of his laughter brings a lingering smile to your face. And suddenly you realize in surprise that it was a great idea. Both of your emotional buckets are fuller when you come home, and it ends up being an early night for the kiddo and more time to relax and unwind for you.
Sometimes their requests don’t make sense: why do we need to read the same book every night?! He should be reading new books and learning more. Why can’t he fall asleep on his own but needs you to stay until he is completely asleep and trying to sneak out before then ends in a meltdown? During these moments, it will be helpful to ask yourself: What need is this request satisfying? Keep wondering - what might be bothering my little one? Maybe he is scared of something and a similar situation is brought up in the book, and then is positively resolved? Perhaps the reassurance he receives from hearing the story again and again calms his fears? Is he afraid to let go of you at bedtime because he recently started preschool and misses you? Often you won’t know what it is exactly that motivates these demands. But rest assured that there is always a reason, even when they are not able to put it into words. Because sometimes they don’t even understand but just feel better doing this activity with you. Becoming a sensitive parent is based on being emotionally available to your child throughout their early years, adjusting our responses based on the child’s growing skills. An emotionally attuned parent knows that where there is a need, they should try their best to meet it.
It is important to notice that we are not talking about buying toys, getting treats or paying for activities. The most valuable contributions you make as a parent to your children’s lives usually only cost your time and energy. Because by following your child’s lead, by giving him what he was asking for, you show him that he is seen, heard, and understood. This will reinforce his sense of stability, safety, and self-value. He will know that you are on his side, that he is important to you and you have his back. All these elements are the building blocks of secure attachment. A secure attachment continues being one of the main goals of parenting, because we know now from decades of research how important it is. Studies have demonstrated time and again that children who are securely attached to at least one adult, will grow up to be more emotionally regulated, have higher self-esteem, better coping skills under stress, form closer relationships with others, are more academically successful, and socially adapted (1).
In other words, when children can form a secure attachment, their path in life will be easier thanks to these first years with you. Isn’t it the best parenting award we can wish for?!
(1) Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment & Human Development, 7(4), 349-367.